Investigation:

Thou­sands of Ki­wis head to the Gold Coast ev­ery year in search of fun at the re­gion’s fa­mous theme parks. Af­ter four tragic deaths at Dream­world, Bev­er­ley Had­graft looks at Aus­tralia’s amuse­ment park in­dus­try and finds se­ri­ous cause for con­cern.

Australian Women’s Weekly NZ - - Contents -

just how safe are Aus­tralia’s theme parks?

On De­cem­ber 2 last year, her 59th birth­day, Kim Dorsett asked to re­turn to Dream­world. She wanted to visit the Thun­der Rapids ride, the place her chil­dren, Kate Good­child and Luke Dorsett, had died, she said. She wanted to un­der­stand what had hap­pened to them.

“Some peo­ple were sur­prised, but when the ac­ci­dent oc­curred, Kim was in such shock she didn’t re­ally com­pre­hend what had hap­pened,” says Kim’s life­long best friend San­dra Brook­field. “The staff met her and looked af­ter her, and an Abo­rig­i­nal bless­ing was held on the site. She got some com­fort from that.”

Com­fort has been hard to come by for Kim since Kate and Luke drowned on the ride, along with Luke’s part­ner,

Roozbeh Araghi, and Cindy Low, in

Oc­to­ber 2016. She asked San­dra not to send a gift at Christ­mas, pre­fer­ring to spend the day by her chil­dren’s graves. She is sew­ing a patch­work quilt from Luke’s old clothes. She takes her baby grand­daugh­ter, Evie, for swim­ming lessons.

San­dra has been an al­most daily con­fi­dante for her best mate. Kim tele­phones San­dra’s Pen­rith, NSW, home reg­u­larly and pours out her pain. “We rem­i­nisce and rem­i­nisce,” San­dra says.

Mostly, they talk about Kate and

Luke. Kim, says San­dra, des­per­ately clings onto the last happy mem­ory she has of her fam­ily to­gether, shar­ing a lamb roast the evening be­fore she waved them off to Dream­world. Kim was alone in their hol­i­day apart­ment when she got the phone call about the deaths of her chil­dren.

San­dra knows that Kim’s trauma will not fade any time soon, as she faces years of le­gal­i­ties ahead. She knows, too, it hasn’t faded for many other vis­i­tors to Aus­tralia’s fa­mous theme parks. “I hear so many par­ents ar­gu­ing about whether our theme parks are safe,” San­dra says. “If I had grand­chil­dren, I wouldn’t take them. Life is too pre­cious and there are still too many unan­swered ques­tions. Al­ready, there’s been that in­ci­dent with that ride at Movie World.”

The in­ci­dent San­dra refers to hap­pened on the Arkham Asy­lum roller-coaster ride on Jan­uary 11. Nine­teen women and one young boy were left dan­gling in the 30-de­gree heat for more than 90 min­utes while staff and fire­fight­ers tried to res­cue them from the 32m-high mon­ster that prom­ises speeds of up to 85km per hour and “five stom­ach-churn­ing in­ver­sions”. Ac­cord­ing to Movie World Gen­eral Man­ager Greg Yong, a me­chan­i­cal is­sue with a chain had caused the roller­coaster to stop and more main­te­nance checks were or­dered.

Yet only a cou­ple of weeks be­fore, Queens­land’s safety in­spec­tors had

com­pleted an au­dit of all the Gold

Coast’s theme parks and given them a clean bill of health. The in­ci­dent clearly rat­tled the pub­lic. Aus­tralia theme park vis­its were down 12 per cent this sum­mer, no one sure if the Thun­der Rapids tragedy was a one-off or if they are play­ing me­chan­i­cal roulette when they pass through the turn­stiles.

Cer­tainly, Thun­der Rapids was only one of 17 in­ci­dent re­ports Work­place Health and Safety Queens­land re­ceived last year. Most were mi­nor staff com­plaints, but others were po­ten­tially hor­rific. A young boy’s foot be­came stuck in Dream­world’s FlowRider, a re­straint be­came un­clipped on the park’s Tower of Ter­ror, while an­other guest fell into the wa­ter af­ter stand­ing up on a log ride.

Mean­while, in Syd­ney on one Jan­uary day in 2014, two eight-year-olds, Alisha Merchant and Mia Gore, ended up in hos­pi­tal af­ter be­ing bounced out of rub­ber rafts at Wet’n’Wild’s Bomb­ora slide, in sep­a­rate in­ci­dents. The ride swiftly closed for safety checks – too lit­tle too late, some may say.

“Thrown like a rag doll”

Be­fore Dream­world, the most re­cent Aus­tralian amuse­ment ride fa­tal­ity was at the Royal Ade­laide Show in 2014, when eight-year-old Ade­lene Leong was “thrown through the air like a lit­tle rag doll” from an AirMaxx 360 ride, lead­ing to the investigation of the safety in­spec­tor who had cleared the ride as safe. It wasn’t the first time hor­ror had vis­ited the show. In 2000, a sec­tion of a ride called the Spin Dragon came loose, bounc­ing from the base and crash­ing into 37 peo­ple. The District Court was told that 44 of the 48 bolts con­nect­ing the gon­dola to ro­tat­ing metal arms snapped due to fa­tigue.

While no na­tional fig­ures are avail­able, in Queens­land, the home of theme parks, there have been six pros­e­cu­tions re­lat­ing to se­ri­ous in­juries and the death of a worker on fete and fair amuse­ment rides in Aus­tralia over the past 13 years. Most dis­tress­ing of all, the in­juries in­cluded a six-year-old girl and a five-year-old boy both suf­fer­ing se­ri­ous head in­juries and frac­tures af­ter be­ing hurled from spin­ning Siz­zler and

Fris­bee rides, re­spec­tively.

When we climb onto a thrill ride, it’s with the ex­pec­ta­tion of ex­cite­ment in guar­an­teed safety. We ex­pect laugh­ter, not trauma. In­deed, there is some­thing about death in a palace of fun that sends shiv­ers down our spines – ask any­one who re­calls the 1979 ghost train fire that killed seven at Syd­ney’s Luna Park.

Theme park bosses in­sist that the safety and wellbeing of guests are a top pri­or­ity, but Queens­land lo­cal Brok Bunker isn’t so sure. He used to be a multi-pass theme park tragic, but not any more. “I wouldn’t go back to any of the theme parks now. No one in my fam­ily would and I wouldn’t ad­vise any­one else to, ei­ther,” he says.

Brok claims he’s had a harness come un­done half­way through the Arkham Asy­lum ride him­self and then, late last year, the Bris­bane 18-year-old was stuck on an­other Movie World ride, The Green Lan­tern, famed for hav­ing the sec­ond steep­est drop of any roller-coaster in the world.

“The siren sounded and then that was it for a good 45 min­utes. We had to sit up there, swel­ter­ing in the heat be­fore we were res­cued,” he says. “The Green Lan­tern is al­ways get­ting stuck.”

And so it is. It stopped twice in one day in Jan­uary 2013 and, in March 2015, a car be­came de­tached from the rails when a wheel mech­a­nism broke. Rid­ers were re­port­edly told they were saved from plung­ing to the ground by just two bolts, a claim that the theme park de­nies.

Brok has had sim­i­lar ex­pe­ri­ences at Dream­world, where he claims to have seen op­er­a­tors strug­gling to keep track of whose har­nesses they’d fas­tened and ac­ci­den­tally hit­ting emer­gency stop but­tons. “I felt that ev­ery time I went to Dream­world, it looked run­down and

The Gold Coast will be­come a waste­land if the parks fail to pass muster.

some­thing broke down, stopped, was stuck in the air or was closed,” he says. “You wouldn’t get in a car that un­re­li­able. Why would you get in a ride?”

Checks and bal­ances

Ben Swan, Sec­re­tary of the Queens­land branch of the Aus­tralian Work­ers’ Union, is also wor­ried about Dream­world’s op­er­a­tors – or rather the lack of them. He has in­de­pen­dently con­firmed with US ride man­u­fac­tur­ers that a sin­gle op­er­a­tor there is al­most anath­ema. “Go to the States and a sim­i­lar ride to Thun­der Rapids will have eight or 10 peo­ple mon­i­tor­ing it. Why were there only two at Dream­world?” he asks.

Speak­ing to The Aus­tralian Women’s Weekly the day af­ter the Arkham Asy­lum ride res­cue, Ben re­vealed this lat­est in­ci­dent had prompted him to con­tact Queens­land Premier An­nasta­cia Palaszczuk, ask­ing her to es­tab­lish a spe­cial­ist unit within the state’s Work­place Health and Safety specif­i­cally for amuse­ment parks. It’s not with­out prece­dent, he says. Other in­dus­tries that deal in heavy me­chan­i­cal en­gi­neer­ing, such as min­ing, have their own spe­cialised units of reg­u­la­tion – and they’re not ac­ces­si­ble to chil­dren and fam­i­lies.

“It’s about con­fi­dence,” Ben says. “The tourism and hos­pi­tal­ity in­dus­try is one of the four pil­lars of the Queens­land econ­omy. The Gold Coast will be­come a waste­land if the theme parks fail to pass muster on health and safety. I don’t want th­ese places closed – I’ve got mem­bers work­ing there – but I want them bet­ter. How many peo­ple do you need to in­jure, kill or dis­tress?”

Ben’s frus­tra­tion with Dream­world goes back to be­fore the Thun­der Rapids deaths. It took him a year be­fore they were forced to let him see their “world’s best prac­tice” risk as­sess­ments and then they handed them over heav­ily redacted. “They’ve cited le­gal is­sues, but if they have the world’s best prac­tice, why not shout it from the rooftops?” Ben asks, puz­zled. “It doesn’t make sense.”

Ben says he was con­tacted af­ter the Dream­world deaths by for­mer em­ploy­ees and health and safety in­spec­tors. “I rep­re­sent peo­ple op­er­at­ing this stuff and they’re ex­posed,” he says. “They’re putting fam­i­lies and chil­dren on that stuff and they’re ex­posed. I wouldn’t feel com­fort­able tak­ing kids there and I’m not go­ing to shut up about it.”

His at­ti­tude is at odds with Queens­land’s Work­place Health and Safety, which keeps an of­fi­cial record of all re­ports of theme park in­ci­dents. Aus­tralia’s safety stan­dards are above and be­yond in­ter­na­tional stan­dards, a spokesman said. “The parks are very vig­i­lant about safety.”

The spokesman be­lieves that the in­crease in ride stop­pages is ac­tu­ally due to an in­crease in so­phis­ti­cated safety fea­tures.

“Th­ese au­to­mat­i­cally stop the ride in a safe fash­ion and at a safe lo­ca­tion when po­ten­tial is­sues [weather, power surges or guest be­hav­iour] are de­tected,” he says. “As a re­sult of this, stop­pages have been rel­a­tively more fre­quent re­cently. Pa­trons aren’t ex­posed to in­jury risk, only in­con­ve­nience.”

One per­son who is par­tic­u­larly pre­oc­cu­pied with restor­ing the pub­lic’s faith in Aus­tralia’s theme parks is The Aus­tralian Women’s Weekly’s for­mer Ed­i­tor-in-Chief, Deb­o­rah Thomas, now CEO of Ar­dent, the par­ent com­pany of Dream­world and White­Wa­ter World. Her cur­rent goal is to en­sure Dream­world “has the high­est safety stan­dards in the world”.

As a re­sult, as this ar­ti­cle went to press,

Ar­dent was car­ry­ing out a multi-tiered safety re­view, which in­cludes grease-un­der-thefin­ger­nails in­spec­tions by Work­place Health and Safety, Dream­world’s own en­gi­neers and

Pitt & Sherry, one of Aus­tralia’s lead­ing ex­perts in me­chan­i­cal en­gi­neer­ing. Royal Life Sav­ing has been brought in to dou­ble-check pro­ce­dures and train­ing, with the whole ex­er­cise be­ing han­dled in­de­pen­dently by Deloitte Aus­tralia.

“We’re at arm’s length, as we should be,” Deb­o­rah says. “This was not some­thing we were asked to do by po­lice or the Queens­land gov­ern­ment. It was our de­ci­sion and it’s un­prece­dented.”

No ride at Dream­world will op­er­ate un­less it has passed th­ese strin­gent checks, al­though staff mem­bers are still paid while they wait to re­turn to work. “It’s been de­signed so that mums like my­self can say, ‘You know what? I feel safe on that ride and my son will be safe as well,’” says Deb­o­rah.

So what is safe? Many have cited a statis­tic from the UK’s Health and Safety Ex­ec­u­tive, which says there is one death for ev­ery 834 mil­lion amuse­ment rides, com­pared to fly­ing, where there’s one death for ev­ery 125 mil­lion.

Re­as­sured? A plane ride is at least 10 times longer than a theme park ride and it’s sub­ject to many more vari­ables, such as weather, birds and pi­lot er­ror. A ride oc­curs in a repet­i­tive, con­trolled en­vi­ron­ment. There should be zero deaths.

ABOVE: Flo­ral trib­utes cov­ered the en­trance to Dream­world in trib­ute to the four peo­ple killed on the Thun­der Rapids ride (be­low). The park closed for six weeks af­ter the ac­ci­dent.

FROM FAR LEFT: Movie World’s Arkham Asy­lum ride stalled, leav­ing 20 peo­ple stranded in Jan­uary. The Spin Dragon ride, a sec­tion of which broke off, in­jur­ing 37 in Ade­laide in 2000. BE­LOW: Head­lines in 1989 about the investigation into the 1979 Luna Park fire.

ABOVE: Wet’n’ Wild in Syd­ney, where two girls were hurt in 2014.

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